The US Presidential Elections: Clinton acquires aura of a winner

FOR A MOMENT, three decades dropped away. As searchlights made patterns in the icy night sky, and 10,000 people put aside two hours of waiting to exult, there was another young Democratic contender for the presidency talking of his vision of change, of how a nation divided could reunite to 'break the barriers of our common future'.

As yet, Bill Clinton is no John Kennedy. But briefly last night in Ann Arbor, on the same campus where candidate JFK launched the Peace Corps 32 years ago, he came close. Two hours earlier the last presidential debate had ended. Mr Clinton's performance had been adequate but no more. Now though it hardly matters. Unmistakably, almost tangibly, he has acquired the aura of a winner. If so, Ross Perot is the man to thank.

Just who won the Monday night contest is a matter of dispute. CNN gave it to Mr Perot, the other networks to Mr Clinton. What nobody disputes is that, despite his most forceful and coherent performance yet, George Bush failed to secure the breakthrough he desperately needed. And each time he seemed to be closing in on the Arkansas Governor, the starch-tongued Texan billionaire was there to thwart him.

Time and again, Mr Bush sought to portray his opponent as a man so committed to equivocation that he was unfit to govern. But on every occasion there was Mr Perot to deflect the fire back to the President. If the true goal of a quixotic campaign has been to sink an incumbent Mr Perot so plainly dislikes, Monday's confrontation at East Lansing was living proof of it.

Take Bill Clinton's draft record. Why was Mr Bush so fixated on events 23 years ago, when a country yearned for answers to its contemporary woes, Mr Perot asked. Most potently of all, before a record 90 million viewers, he publicly ripped open the festering wound of 'Iraqgate' more savagely than ever before.

Jim Lehrer, the moderator, could not hold them apart. Come clean, Mr Perot demanded, publish the instructions given to the ambassador, April Glaspie, before her fateful encounter with President Saddam Hussein a week before the invasion of Kuwait. There was no doubt, he insisted, that she had been faithfully carrying out instructions, permitting President Saddam a grab for the oilfields of northern Kuwait. 'Only he took the whole thing, and then we went mad. Let's get the facts out.'

'Absurd,' the President snarled, 'Iraqgate is just a bunch of people who were wrong on the war, trying to do a little revisionism.' Afterwards the spin-doctors drove home the same point. 'It is nonsense, no more, no less,' said Brent Scowcroft, the National Security adviser. Mary Matalin, the fieriest Bush spokesman of them all, was adamant. The President's performance had been 'stellar'.

Alas, not so. Mr Bush had fought effectively, and for once his heart genuinely seemed in the fight. But rarely did he dominate, and the best line belonged to Mr Clinton. Assailed again for seeking to have all things both ways, his retort was blistering: 'Americans are sick and tired of having either-or policies, of constantly being polarised - and look at George Bush. Once he was against voodoo economics; now he's its greatest practitioner.'

By now, though, such things hardly matter. A draw in the debate was all the Arkansas Governor required, and he got it. Yesterday it was back to business as usual - a triumphal progress through the Midwest. At noon he addressed a rally in Chicago, a last gesture to the state of Illinois where no Democrat has won since 1964, but where his lead now is around 20 per cent. Then it was on to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Mr Clinton is firmly in command. But it was that chilling campus at Ann Arbor which truly caught the mood.

In fact, avoiding complacency is the order of the hour, as Mr Clinton's communications director and close friend, George Stephanopoulos, is acutely aware. 'This race is going to tighten,' he warns. 'There's no way we'll win it by 15 per cent.' Maybe not, but to hear those hardy 10,000 on Monday night, there was no way of telling.

(Photograph omitted)